Miss Pudgie is watching and can act faster than the fittest of lifeguards — even if she is a great-grandmother. As if in proof, she has no hesitancy in bringing her interview with Weelunk.com to a sudden halt.
“Geremy!” she booms from the cave-like darkness of the concession stand. “Those kids are jumping off the side!”
She settles back in her chair, offers a deep chuckle and, just as quickly, resumes her normal, soft-spoken ways. “If they’re doing stuff, they’re going to get a holler and then get five minutes out.”
Rolling her eyes at something that happened the day before, she recalls a group of boys attempting to throw rocks (and blame) at each other — before she hauled all of them out of the water.
“Typical kid stuff.” And, she chuckles again.
Ella Lee — Miss Pudgie to pool patrons, as well as family and neighborhood friends — ought to know. She’s seen a bit of everything in more than 20 summers as manager of the city pool and as a private childcare provider during the school year.
Geremy Paige, the lifeguard in question, laughs at that idea during swim break, as does her granddaughter Mikisha Lee, who is also among the 70-some to staff the city’s four neighborhood pools.
“I was walking early, potty trained, talking early, well behaved,” says Paige, who was cared for by Lee in his early days. “Any kid that goes through her is a respectful child.”
“She should get a plaque,” Mikisha Lee jokes when Lee says she has one child, three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter, who is only a few weeks old. “They may not be hers legally, but she raised them.”
Lee joins in the joking at this point. “There are kids I raised — then, here comes their kids,” she says of generational familiarity in the Vineyard Hills/Wheeling Heights neighborhood in which Grandview Pool is located. “I’ve raised a lot of kids. The ones in my home and the ones I watched.”
CLOSE TO HOME
And, that is exactly the point, according to Jesse Mestrovic, director of the city’s overall park and recreation program.
“I kind of think of it as pool moms vs. pool managers,” Mestrovic said. “They take care of the pools, they take care of the neighborhood, they educate … they’re leaders in the community.”
Mestrovic considers the neighborhood pools such an important part of the city’s recreation network that he’s made them the heart of a lot more than swimming.
At Grandview Pool, for example, the concession stand offers more than the typical junk food associated with a sunny, splashy afternoon. During the lunch hour, free lunches provided through Ohio County Schools or the Salvation Army are distributed to children.
This is true for the three other city pools — Garden Park Pool in Warwood, the 36th Street Pool in South Wheeling and Bridge Park Pool on Wheeling Island. (Wheeling’s larger public pools — at Wheeling Park and Oglebay — are operated through the separate Wheeling Park Commission.)
There are also arts and crafts programs onsite and a price he believes beats that of any other public pool in the state. Even with a 2019 rate increase — the first since 1986, he said, and adding up to a fraction of the $250,000 it takes to operate the four pools — only Vienna, West Virginia, comes close. (Local daily admission is free to children 5 and younger, $1 for children 6-12 and $2 for everyone else.)
Add in perks like free senior-adult swim times and the occasional Family Fun Night or sponsored day (when entry is free, and sometimes food or even bikes are distributed), and the pools are doing everything a neighborhood park is supposed to do, Mestrovic said.
“We are very lucky that we have as many recreational opportunities as we have,” he said, noting the system additionally includes such facets as sports fields, 13 miles of paved trails and an indoor recreation center that is also located in Vineyard Hills.
WHAT’S OLD IS NEW
Ironically, Wheeling’s pre-car emergence has made it nearly cutting edge in such offerings. Mestrovic said modern national standards are for city park systems to offer recreational opportunities within a quarter- or half-mile walk for most residents.
Wheeling, with its distinct neighborhoods and 22 playgrounds, is on par. The pools, which offer a way to cool down in addition to recreation, are out there where people live, as well.
Lee, who remembers the time gap between the loss of the former Vineyard Hills pool to a landslide and the construction of the current Grandview Pool, agrees this is an important issue.
“It means a lot to the kids and the parents,” Lee said, noting many of Grandview’s patrons walk to the pool. “If we didn’t have it, they would have to get a ride or take a bus.”
Mestrovic believes in deep-neighborhood access so much he has made renovation of the small parks, pools and athletic sites a priority in his two and a half years on the job.
The department is in the middle of a five-year plan that has already seen playground equipment replaced at 12 sites, for example. More replacements and improvements are on the way, including sidewalk cuts for accessibility and a parking lot repaving at Grandview Pool.
A new neighborhood park is also in the works. Gateway Park is proposed to be located on Wheeling Island, in between the western end of the suspension bridge and the House of the Carpenter.
He sees the sites as lifelines — making Wheeling a better place to raise children for everyone and bringing high-quality recreational opportunities to even the lowest-income areas.
Lee — still eagle-eying the pool and fielding drink requests for “blue” or “purple” from patrons too small to see over the concession counter — agrees and offered a bit of irony on the lifeline, teamwork, good-neighbor idea.
She cannot swim.
“I would have to stay in the three foot (if someone was drowning),” she acknowledges. “The best thing I can do is get that thing (life preserver) and pull them in. And, if I threw it in, they had better catch it because that’s all I’ve got.”
Then, she redirects with a glance out the window at Paige, all grown up and standing poolside with his whistle in hand. “That’s why I’ve got the lifeguards out there.”
City pools in the Vineyard Hills, South Wheeling and Warwood neighborhoods remain open through Sunday, Aug. 11. The Wheeling Island pool will have an extended season, staying available on weekends through Labor Day weekend.
• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.